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Poison Cups Of Crystal
( Article orginally published June 1944 )
The two magnificent examples of Renaissance crystal vessels which are illustrated here belong to a rare category in the goldsmith's art. Rock crystal was a substance held in special esteem in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. It was thought that crystal would not hold poison, and therefore in a day when the offering of a poisoned drink was a convenient way to get rid of one's enemies, a cup of crystal naturally possessed a special attraction. Cups were carved with great skill from a solid piece of crystal. Many engraved with the design of winged figures, scrolls and other Renaissance motives and the other a design of spiral, fluting. With silver-gilt mounts which were beautifully fashioned. The cups produced in France, posessed much of the Gothic feeling, with the use of castles that had a charming bit of a Gothic feel.
Queen Elizabeth drank from a crystal cup at her coronation, the cup being the celebrated "Bowes" cup, made in 1554, which now belongs to the GoldsmitLs' Company in London. There is a tankard with a crystal body at Clare College, Cambridge, which has been known as the "Poison cup" even since it was presented to that institution in the year 1618, while an English writer of 1622 shows the attitude of the time in his expression regarding "such a diaphanous pellucid body as you see a crystal glass is, which hath this property above gold or silver, or any other minerale, to admit no poison". Sir John Davies writes in A Contention (1602), "The crystal glass that will no venom hold." Had this view been taken with complete seriousness, however, we would assume that every noble lord would have insisted on drinking his wine from a goblet of crystal, but there seems to have been an element of doubt as to the complete infallibility of this substance to perform the desired function, for many magnificent drinking vessels were made in gold and silver, in fact the majority were of silver, and those of crystal with silver mountings were the exception. These were, however, treasured highly, and the ownership of any existing specimen of today leads back to distinguished origin. The beauty of the mounts show that the goldsmiths lavished their highest skill upon them. They are eagerly sought today, for museums and for private collections of the finest Renaissance silver, along with such rarities as ostrich egg cups and coconut cups, for both of these, to us common, objects from foreign lands were once of such value as curiosities that they were given the most costly mountings. The crystal cup had intrinsic value and the additional charm of its magic properties, while they appeal to us with the timeless magic of beauty and elegance.